Thursday 17 January 2013

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

Things have never been easy for Oscar, a sweet but disastrously overweight, lovesick Dominican ghetto nerd. From his home in New Jersey, where he lives with his old-world mother and rebellious sister, Oscar dreams of becoming the Dominican J. R. R. Tolkien and, most of all, of finding love. But he may never get what he wants, thanks to the Fukú—the curse that has haunted the Oscar's family for generations, dooming them to prison, torture, tragic accidents, and, above all, ill-starred love. Oscar, still waiting for his first kiss, is just its most recent victim. 

Díaz immerses us in the tumultuous life of Oscar and the history of the family at large, rendering with genuine warmth and dazzling energy, humor, and insight the Dominican-American experience, and, ultimately, the endless human capacity to persevere in the face of heartbreak and loss. A true literary triumph, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao confirms Junot Díaz as one of the best and most exciting voices of our time.

Goodreads Description

At first as I read the trials and tribulations of Oscar, the over-weight fantasy geek who desperately wants a relationship with a woman, I wondered how the author was going to sustain Oscar's story for a whole book. I needn't have worried: the book rapidly expands beyond Oscar's limited life to become a story of three generations of his family set against the terrible history the Dominican Republic. 

The other issue a reader encounters early on is the regular use of Spanish slang, of swear words and of geeky references to Sci Fi, fantasy and Japanese anime. Later one is hit by the misogyny that is displayed by many characters as well as a racism - for example the Oscar's mother is blacker than her family and not only is this considered a problem by them but even she likes to go out with paler skinned men.

The book's structure is complex. The book opens with Oscar's childhood and adolescence told by a (then) unnamed narrator, then shifts to a first-person narrative (which starts in the second-person) by Oscar's big sister Lola, then to a third person account of their mother's youth and so on  through the book. When an identity is finally given to the anonymous narrator, one realizes why the narration is the way it is - with swear words, slang and casual misogyny - namely that the narrator is a typical Dominican dude. However just as you realize that, you also realize that at times the narrator talks in an eloquent academic way and combines real insight and empathy alongside his Latino machismo. You also begin to question the accuracy of the narration - how could the narrator have known certain things? is there another narrator? Diaz's narrative style has you standing on shifting sands. 

The story of Oscar's family is a dark one, like so many who suffered under the brutal dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo Homeboy dominated Santo Domingo like it was his very own private Mordor.  For those of us who know nothing about the tragic history of the country Diaz provides footnotes. 

The parallels with One Hundred Years of Solitude are made clear, Macondo is referenced by the narrator. Oscar's family, as is the case with Marquez's Buendias, is cursed to repeat the mistakes and tragedies through the generations. The book opens with a definition and history of this curse which was carried in the screams of the enslaved from Africa. It is called fuku.  Fuku is a curse that lies on all Dominicans and their country - not only is Trujillo  portrayed as a purveyor of fuku, but it becomes clear that Dominican male attitude to women is also a curse. The counter to fuku is zafa. The narrator expresses the hope that Oscar has found zafa for his family by the end of the book. 

Fuku and to a lesser extent zafa are core themes to the book, and are clearly part of its magic realism. There are two other elements of magic realism, which might be said to be embodiments of fuku and zafa  - the golden mongoose who helps when members of the family are in extreme danger and the negative counter to the mongoose the eyeless man who appears as family members are going into danger and even in one case appears to take part in a brutal attack. 

Oscar's fuku is in some ways not that he is a geek, fat or with an difficult family, it is because unlike other Dominican males, he wants a meaningful relationship with a girl/woman. He rather sweetly hopes that being a good friend would lead to love and sex, only to have the object of his desire prefer a macho alternative. I don't want to spoil the ending, so I will simply say that Diaz suggests that the zafa Oscar may have found is also his fuku.

I enjoyed this book: it left me with all sorts of thoughts and ideas. It clearly is not suited to someone who likes simple linear narrative and unambiguous characters, but if you like to be challenged this is a great book. 

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